Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting
Posted on Mon, January 1st, 2007 in Exhibition Reviews
BY JESSICA HEMMINGS
Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting
Museum of Arts & Design, New York City
January 25 – June 17, 2007
In place of the usual stereotypes the plague knitting and lace making, Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, David Revere McFadden has assembled an exhibition defined by large-scale work and alternative materials. With the exception of Althea Merback’s absurdly small knitting, the majority of work on display looms large. More often than not the materials here are other than textile: chocolate, metal, glass, shredded money and video all make an appearance. Strangely, there are few examples of work that interrogates the structure of knitting or lace. This poetic licence permits a vast range of work to be included, but dilutes exploration of the currency knitting in particular is currently enjoying.
Rather than be pedantic about definitions of lace and knitting, McFadden has selected, along with work that is knitted or made of lace, work that is inspired by knit or lace patterns. Thus Elana Herzog’s eerily beautiful deconstruction of a family carpet is allowed in, despite the fact that the carpet is woven. Secured to the gallery wall with industrial staples, the caption information explains that the carpet’s pattern makes reference to lace, without being lace itself. Herzog traces portions of this original pattern with the introduction of a distinctly industrial, aggressive material: industrial staples that hold in place the fragmented remains of the textile. Opposite, Cal Lane’s steel sculpture “Filigree Car Bombing” of found automobile parts manages to evoke remarkable beauty from materials that do not lend themselves easily to such associations. Rather than lace bobbins or knitting needles, Lane wields an industrial blowtorch to cut patterns into metal. Remnants of the process are sprinkled on the floor in a further lace-like pattern. Nearby, a video of Dave Cole using giant JCBs to help knit an overblown American flag and a small teddy bear of knitted lead ribbon confirm once and for all that knitting and lace making are far from diminutive or merely decorative. Safety equipment, in the case of these three, extends far beyond the prerequisite thimble.
Plain old beauty, something it seems we have to work very hard to justify these days, is also on display. Piper Shephard’s “Lace Meander” is one of many works to suggest the pattern rather than the structure of lace, but is remarkably beautiful either way. Cut by hand using a knife, the long screens speak of the time and patience it takes to knit or assemble lace, but does this through a reductive technique. Anne Wilson’s eloquent video work of animated lace fragments brings, along with beauty, a touch of humour. But the decision to site Wilson’s work near the exhibition’s other video piece by Cat Mazza was unfortunate. Mazza, in contrast to Wilson’s sophisticated anthropomorphisms, speaks out against sweatshop labour and the unjust working practices that make up a large portion of the textile industry today. This grave topic is conveyed through a series of interviews in which speakers’ faces are concealed by an animated pattern of cross-stitch. This work, and many others, deserved more breathing room than it enjoyed.
In fact there is a danger that this exhibition simply includes too much. Liz Collins knitted dress with “veins” extending out into the gallery drew the short straw in a dark corner of the upper gallery. Similarly, Sabrina Gschwandtner interactive work which encouraged participants to sit down and knit alongside her own knitted images of the role knitting has played throughout recent history, seemed unfortunately placed in the corner of the basement level. Sheila Pepe’s large installation of rope and shoe laces which references the grid and clamour of mid-town Manhattan and Janet Echelman’s?hand-knotted nylon net were both thought provoking additions to the exhibition, but also needed far more space to do these large works justice.
Rather than concede that less is more, the goal here seemed to be to inundate the viewer. Fewer pieces on display may in fact have done those present more justice. There were also works cleverly tucked away that ran the danger of being missed entirely. I nearly overlooked Shane Waltener’s efforts to “engage with an often overlooked area of the museum” (the entrance leading to the little used lift) and in fact did miss a work apparently sited in the museum’s gift shop windows. Waltener’s white elastic web proved just a little too subtle for the white space, used by museum staff far more than the general public.
Surprisingly, few works in the exhibition were garments or related to the body. Liz Collins’ “Corporeal Constructions” and Freddie Robins “Craft Kills” suit offered exceptions that clearly referenced the body. The Japanese designer Yoshiki Hishinuma is known for garments, but here exhibited a beautiful green textile that felt more like a sculpture than a fashion accessory. The omission of Canadian artist Andrea Vander Kooij was a shame, as knitting and its relationship to the scale of body, as well as the monumental, deserve equal attention. But apart from the quibble of just what defines knitting and lace this exhibition does contain the sort of textiles that formerly named craft museums need to bring to light for the public. Hopefully, the planned move to the renovated 2 Columbus Circle in the Spring of 2008 will solve many of the display constraints that detracted from the current exhibition.
Selvedge Magazine (2007: 89)